Carved pumpkins are as integral to a Halloween display as scarecrows, witches and ghosts. But displaying them outside is not without its pitfalls. While I wouldn't want to dissuade you from the time-honored practice of carving a jack-o'-lantern, let me alert you to some potential problems of which you may be unaware, in the interest of promoting Halloween safety.
Carved Pumpkins: Initial Safety Precautions
Carving jack-o'-lanterns is messy business, so work outside. Set up a temporary workbench (e.g., lay an old door across sawhorses), preferably on the lawn. Why the lawn, rather than the driveway? Because the pulp from jack-o'-lanterns (which you'll need to scoop out) is slippery. If you get some on the driveway, someone could slip on it and get hurt.
Secondly, carving jack-o'-lanterns involves the use of cutting tools, such as knives. When the jack-o'-lantern is completed, don't leave knives lying around outside. Kids might come along and pick them up.
Carved Pumpkins: Deck, Patio or Porch Safety
When our jack-o'-lanterns are ready for display, we often set them out on decks, patios or porches. In so doing, we may be unwittingly inviting rodents and stinging insects to the home, as these pests are drawn to the now exposed soft inner flesh of the jack-o'-lanterns. Of the two, the insects are the more dangerous if you're allergic to hornet or yellow jacket stings. To counteract the threat, set out insect traps.
As carved pumpkins begin to rot (they can do so quite rapidly!), the issue of their slipperiness again becomes a cause for concern. The problem is now exacerbated by the proximity of the carved pumpkins to doors leading inside from decks, patios or porches. One morning, without watching where you're going, you could open the door, begin to descend the porch stairs, step on a piece of rotted jack-o'-lantern flesh -- and take a nasty spill. Worse yet, a stranger could take a similar spill on your porch and sue you.
So check your carved pumpkin daily for signs of rot. When it begins to feel slippery, don't take chances: throw it in the compost bin. Alternatively, instead of sculpting pumpkins to make jack-o'-lanterns, create Halloween jack-o'-lanterns from hardshell gourds. Unlike pumpkins, they don't rot -- they're permanent.
Illuminating Carved Pumpkins
Further safety issues arise when your intent is to illuminate carved pumpkins. Candles have been used traditionally to illuminate jack-o'-lanterns. But the open flame of a candle poses a fire hazard. If you're going to illuminate carved pumpkins on your deck, patio or porch using candles, take these Halloween safety precautions:
- Don't leave them unattended.
- Be thorough in your leaf removal efforts, so there'll be less around to catch fire.
- Don't leave them on your deck, patio or porch during trick or treat, as kids' costumes may be flammable.
A safer option for illuminating jack-o'-lanterns is to use glow sticks. They can be bought in party supply stores. There's no flame, cord or batteries to worry about, and they're waterproof. To activate glow sticks, bend them to break the internal glass capsule.
A final Halloween safety reminder: remove garden hoses and other tripping hazards from yards for trick or treat.
Now for the Fun Part!
As stated above, the foregoing warnings are not meant to dissuade you from carving and displaying jack-o'-lanterns. One or more well-placed jack-o'-lanterns do wonders for a Halloween landscape design. So now that you know how to create and display carved pumpkins in a safe manner, a few design tips are in order:
- Before cutting, draw out the line where you'll be cutting the lid off the top of the jack-o'-lantern, around the stem, so that you get an accurate cut. Use a yellow marker (so stray marks won't show). The lid-hole should be big enough to provide access for removing the pulp from the inside.
- While a circular lid is okay, a hexagonal lid is easier to put back on (you just line up the points).
- To cut the lid out, hold your knife at a 45-degree angle, as shown in the picture (above right). That way, the lid will fit in like a keystone. Otherwise, as the jack-o'-lantern begins to dessicate and lose mass, the lid is more prone to fall through the hole.
- Proceed to cut out the lid and remove it.
- With a garden trowel and spoon, scrape the pulp from the inner walls, removing all the seeds and "stringy orange goop."
- Now it's time to work on the jack-o'-lantern face. As with the cut for the lid, draw outlines on the pumpkin first, to serve as guides. Need help or inspiration? Consult my piece, Pumpkin Pictures for Carving Ideas for a broad range of guidance. If, by contrast, what you need is specifically some help with tracing a design on your pumpkin, use my free jack-o'-lantern patterns.
- Since the cutting here is more delicate, begin by making cuts with an Exacto knife, then perforate your outlines with a flat-head screwdriver. Then carefully insert a kitchen knife into the perforations to cut out eyes, nose and mouth. Don't attempt to "saw," just use a series of jabs.
- Immediately after finishing your carved pumpkin masterpiece, apply petroleum jelly to the interior and to the cuts. Petroleum jelly will slow dessication, thereby slowing deterioration.